Drought deepens across Chattanooga region as forecast calls for relief Monday, Tuesday

Chattanooga region almost 10 inches behind in rainfall

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / The drought reduced level of the pond at Parc 1346 Apartments in East Brainerd is seen as a stony ring Friday. The U.S. Drought Monitor shows all of Hamilton, Bradley, Marion, Dade, Walker, Catoosa, Whitfield and Jackson, Ala., counties now in exceptional drought -- the deepest possible -- and the rest of the tristate Chattanooga region's counties are in extreme drought.

Friday's precipitation only stirred the parched dust a little and provided no relief for the region's ongoing drought, but forecasters said there's hope relief is coming Tuesday.

The U.S. Drought Monitor map for the past week shows the large, dark brown bull's-eye of exceptional drought covering all of Hamilton, Bradley, Marion, Dade, Walker, Catoosa, Whitfield and Jackson counties in the tristate Chattanooga region.

Exceptional drought is the worst level identified on the Monitor's map; the rest of the region's counties are in extreme drought, the second-worst level.

"Chattanooga and the surrounding areas have been experiencing a rough time over the past few weeks," Elijah Worley, chief drought officer at the Tennessee Climate Office at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, said via email. "That area was the first in the state to start showing depictions of exceptional drought."


(READ MORE: Last month was the driest September in Chattanooga since 1919)

Over the past month, Hamilton County has averaged a total of 0.29 inches of rainfall, which is 10% or less than would be expected of normal totals, Worley said. Farmers and extension service offices have reported extreme losses in crop yield, early supplemental feeding of cattle and selling herds and poor farming conditions.

"This area of exceptional drought has been developing and moving over Northeast Alabama and Northwest Georgia, and we've been in close communication with the folks that monitor drought conditions for those states," Worley said. "Both of these areas have had pretty similar conditions to the Chattanooga area, so we've classified them together in our recommendations to the U.S. Drought Monitor."

Limited relief in the forecast

Local 3 News meteorologist Alison Pryor said in her morning forecast that as of Friday, the Chattanooga region was 9.5 inches behind in rainfall. Light rain late Friday will be followed Monday with a 30% chance of scattered showers and a front bringing significant rain Tuesday, she said.

"It really looks like this big swath is going to come into our area now on Tuesday only," Pryor said of a hoped-for downpour. "Tuesday, though, that's the big rainfall. It's going to be windy. That can certainly impact your travel if you plan on driving or flying in the Southeast two days before Thanksgiving. By Wednesday, that system is out of here, though, clearing conditions, and then you'll get abundant sunshine for Thanksgiving on Thursday."

Even with a good drenching coming Tuesday, rainfall levels are likely to stay behind for a while, according to Worley.

The Chattanooga region should get around 1.25 inches of rain over the next week, he said.

"It's unclear as to how much impact this rain may have on alleviating conditions in the area, but we're hoping that it's enough to keep things from getting worse," Worley said. "As November closes out, we should be heading into the wetter season, which should help mitigate the conditions we're seeing not only in the Chattanooga area but also across the entire state."

Wildfire update

Drought conditions have fueled wildfires all over East Tennessee, Northwest Georgia and neighboring states, but higher humidity and cloud cover have helped in the past couple of days, according to Joel Blackburn, assistant district forester for the Tennessee Division of Forestry.

An active wildfire was shown on one-tenth of an acre in Polk County at midday Friday, but the state's wildfire map showed no other active fires in the Chattanooga area. However, seven active wildfires were shown on the map scattered across several Northeast Tennessee counties, including an almost 2,700-acre wildfire on Smokey Creek Road in Scott County.

Dolly Parton's Dollywood temporarily suspended entry Thursday because of a nearby wildfire in Sevier County east of Knoxville, according to The Associated Press. Guest were allowed in about 30 minutes later.

(READ MORE: Breezy forecast has officials watching for wildfire spread in the Chattanooga region)

Sprinkles Friday and scattered showers Monday will help, but a problem comes along with Tuesday's rain, Blackburn said in a phone call. The National Weather Service is forecasting wind gusts Monday as high as 25 mph.

"They're forecasting a mountain wind event, so we're not going to let our guard down," Blackburn said. "We're going to continue to mop up and reinforce what we've got. And they've got pretty stiff winds forecast for Tuesday after the rainfall."

State-issued burn bans are in effect in more than seven Tennessee counties, including Rhea, Franklin, Grundy, Polk, DeKalb, Macon and Morgan, and burn permits have been restricted in all of East and Middle Tennessee.

In Georgia, there is no statewide ban or special restriction on burning by the Georgia Forestry Commission, but county officials across Northwest Georgia issued their own 30-day bans in Catoosa, Dade, Murray, Walker and Whitfield counties, according to statements posted online and noted on the Georgia Forestry map.

Forestry officials and local firefighters have battled wildfires nonstop in Dade and Walker counties over the past couple of weeks. On Friday, active wildfires were still blazing, the state's wildfire map showed. On Egypt Hollow Road in Dade County, a wildfire on 176 acres was reported as 99% contained, a 60-acre blaze around mile marker 8 on Interstate 59 was 100% contained but still burning, and a 706-acre wildfire on Georgia Highway 157 in Walker County was listed as 99% contained.

In Alabama, a statewide burn ban issued by Gov. Kay Ivey on Nov. 9 was lifted Friday for the southern half of the state, but the governor's ban remains in effect for the northern half, according to a statement issued Friday by the Alabama Forestry Commission. Alabama's wildfire map showed no active fires Friday.

Across the South, the risk of wildfires has remained high due to prolonged dry and warm conditions, prompting multiple burn bans and warnings for residents and visitors to take extreme caution while outdoors, the AP reported. That includes the National Park Service, which issued a campfire ban throughout the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

In southern West Virginia, a 2,200-acre wildfire continued to burn in a remote area of the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569.